John Day River Kayaking

The John Day River runs through the desert to the northeast of Bend, and at 281 miles is one of the longest undammed rivers in the continental US. Over the weekend I kayaked a 70 mile stretch of the river, from the town of Clarno to Cottonwood Canyon. This is probably the most popular section of the river for boating, but this early in the season I only saw a scattering of rafts.

After a 65 mile bike ride to finish setting up the shuttle (pretty nice biking around here, and good to go when it’s cool) I launched on Friday afternoon. The first 10 miles of the river are mostly ranchland, without much of interest except the largest rapids of the trip, Clarno Rapid, a long class 3. The river was high when I went through — it started in the action stage at 13 kcfs, dropping to 8 kcfs by the end (still high) — and I was concerned that the rapid might be too big. Clarno can be portaged, however, and in any case at this flow it was fine and I got through without issue. The main part of the rapid:

I camped a couple miles below the rapid, and early the next day got to the real focus of the trip: the gorgeous, wild canyon it winds through for the next 60 miles. Rising 1000 to 1500 feet above the river, the canyon doesn’t have the scale of, say, the Grand Canyon or the Tuolumne river canyon, but its steep walls and large variety of rock and land formations make this a great float.

For some scale, my kayak is the blue dot on the river banks to the right:

The river cuts through the Columbia Plateau, an area encompassing much of eastern Oregon and Washington which was formed after being covered by a massive amount of basalt lava some ten million years ago. There are basalt formations all along the river, and in particular a lot of columnar basalt. I’d seen these before at Devil’s Postpile in California, which has one small area of the basalt, but here it was everywhere. When the lava cools at a particular rate, it forms hexagonal columns, sometimes flat or separated from one another, or twisted as if they’d been extruded from a pasta machine.

Lots of bird life in the canyon, of the usual sorts: geese, ducks, ravens, hawks, and various smaller birds I don’t know.

Spent a fair amount of time exploring side canyons and hiking up the canyon walls, then finished the float up on Sunday afternoon. Really nice trip.

This entry was posted in River Kayaking. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.